Book Marketing Now: Jarrett Lerner
Author/illustrator JARRETT LERNER, shares an inside look at the making and design of his new project, A WORK IN PROGRESS + his creative vision for books that invite the reader in
Book Marketing Now is a monthly feature of Books, Marketing, & More, spotlighting writers releasing books into the current market + the inside scoop on marketing and publishing. Other past interviews and insights here!
Jarrett Lerner is an author/illustrator who thinks outside the box. In fact, his signature is taking the box apart entirely and turning it into something both inviting and unexpected. His latest, A Work in Progress, is a moving story of a boy’s struggles with body image, bullying, and self-acceptance — based on his own experiences. It’s told in verse and doodles, white space and expressive illustrations. He is the author and artist behind more than a dozen books for kids, and uses his platform to elevate educators and literary access.
I’ve followed Jarrett on social media for awhile and have been consistently impressed by his humor, generosity, and creativity. For this issue, we discussed his guiding principals when it comes to the books he creates, the true value of editorial partnership, tips for entering the illustrated/graphic publishing space, the critical role educators play in the ecosystem of a book, and the importance of giving back.
Your new book, A Work in Progress, is an unusual format. How have you found the responses have varied, depending on how you refer to that format, and how has that affected pitching the book to your agent, editor, and readers?
So, I consider myself wildly lucky and fortunate for a variety of reasons. But one of them is that I have both an agent and a longtime editor that are comfortable and excited to look at my work, no matter where it lands in terms of age, target audience, and format. As a creator, the freedom that my agent, editor, and publisher have given me with my work, on this book and others, is that I get to decide, in any given moment of working on a book, in drafting and crafting, what is the most powerful way to tell any given part of the story.
A lot of my upcoming releases, including this one, fall into what we've begun to term “hybrids.” They can't really be classified as one or another thing. They land somewhere in the middle or on a Venn diagram, in that zone where three things touch. So it took some trial and error to figure out exactly how to present this book.
We're calling it an “illustrated novel-in-verse.” Simon & Schuster was saying “graphic novel-in-verse”, but then people were just saying, oh, it's a graphic novel, "in verse,” so we switched to “illustrated” so no one's expecting a graphic novel. It's a kid's notebook with some verse, scratches of words, doodles, scribbles, full-fledged illustrations, and drawings. I think of hybrids as you never know what you're going to get from one page turn to the next — a list, a diary entry, a comic. So it was challenging to make sure that the public understood what this book was, until we could really share the interior. But I think it makes it a much more exciting and interesting reading experience.
Tell us more about your publishing journey. What has brought you into this relationship with editors, where they're so confident in you and your work, that they're happy to entertain the idea of publishing anything you’re experimenting with?
I would say a couple things: right off the bat, just sort of vibing and gelling with my editor and having similar goals in terms of the books we're making. In terms of how we want our relationship to work, I was very fortunate that my editor and I are on the same page about the kids we want to reach and what we think books can and should be. We really do have conversations about what our goals are with any given book. Who is the reader going to be? What can we expect of them and what can we maybe not expect of them? How can we make these the best possible books for kids to consume and hopefully fall in love with?
What has benefited our relationship and me the most, and I think is beneficial for anyone entering a partnership with an editor, is exactly that: to make sure they know that it's a partnership. My editor has made every one of my books far better than they would be if I were to not have had her along for the ride helping me out. That's led to me having a lot of trust and to be eager for that part of the process. I work like crazy to give her the greatest manuscript I can.
Who would you say you write for, generally? Who would you say this particular book is for?
The guiding theory and hope and spirit and goal of each work, no matter who the most specific target audience might be, is to have low barriers of entry and high (or no) ceilings. By which I mean, we want the book to be accessible for the broadest number of kids. We want to make it as inviting a place as possible for the readers considering it, whether it's the cover, what the page looks like, or all those design choices.
A Work in Progress tackles topics I think everyone needs to be talking about a lot more. I think it's going to occupy a very curious space, where there's going to be third and fourth grades reading it and high school teachers planning to share it with their high school students. So we wanted to challenge readers (but also make sure not to intimidate anyone on the younger end) by making purposeful choices about how the book looks, how it invites the reader in, and the experience of just flipping through the pages and seeing a lot of drawings and blank space. Seeing that, even though it's 360 pages, it's not dense pages packed full of tiny font.
Then for the older kids, who are maybe not intimidated by a 360 page book and don't need the reassurance of negative space and doodles and all that stuff, who know they can sink their teeth into it, giving them enough within that they can really run with it and and get everything out of it.
I often talk in meetings with my teams, about the Pixar effect. It also happens in the show, Bluey, that I love with my daughters.
We love that show too. It's great. It's like the one show where I'll ask: can I sit and watch this with you?
Yes, exactly! They are so careful and thoughtful, and they've got multiple tracks running. They know they're engaging and connecting every beat of the story with the youngest audience, but they're also providing a track for the older audience to be on. That's what I try to do. I want to offer avenues into and through the book for all kinds of kids. That's the sort of animating spirit of the work: to make the books inviting for as many kids and to give them all something to really go away with.
I really like the way you referred to this book in particular as a place you can invite readers into. I'm also really interested in how you talk about your book as an object. Is that something you consider when you’re drafting or is that something that comes later?
Early on, I'm not worrying about it too much. But it’s in the back of my mind always: what is this object going to look like down the road and is there anything else to compare it to? As I get closer and closer—the book gets under contract, I’m making design choices, working with a designer and directors—it's something that I'm very conscious of.
This book is 18,000 words and it's got a lot of art in it. If you took out the more doodly art and took it out of free verse and structured it as you would a book of prose, this thing would be a hundred pages. But it's triple that, four times that. We were really conscious of making sure that this book would connect with, and be inviting and accessible, for readers who are reading either middle grade or YA. I wanted to give kids, who might be too embarrassed to carry around the more accessible books that are a hundred pages, I wanted to give them an object they could carry around proudly and say: Look! I'm reading this massive thick book and I can do it.
You think as much about the physical book and how that's going to be experienced by the reader.
Yes! I mean, I even talked to my editor about trim size. What size are the pages going to be? What's the space going to look like? How thick? I also design most of the fonts for my books, so I'm even like, how thick are the letters? What's the line weight of these letters? The closer I get to that final product, that object being made, the more I consider the design.
I often get questions from new authors coming into this space of picture books, illustrated novels, graphic novels, wondering: do I have to do the design myself? Do I have to get an illustrator? What kind of relationship are they going to have with their publisher?
One thing that’s important to know: when you enter into a contract with a publisher to make a book, you are entering into an agreement to be on a team to make this book as good as possible. The more you can understand and be open to that, the better it's going to be for everyone. You just have to trust that there are people on your team who are experts at their given thing. You have to cede some control.
When you pitch a manuscript, just like when you are giving a book to a reader, you want to invite them in. The publishers are finishing the book in their head. You want to give them a chance to do that. If you give them the bare bones manuscript and a little freedom to imagine, they might get even more enamored with the project.
If you're not an illustrator, when publishers read your manuscript and consider whether or not they're going to buy it, if it's going to have illustrations, they're going to want a say in that. So usually publishers will keep authors and illustrators siloed. They don't really want them to interact, and that's to sort of preserve the author's and the publisher's seat at the table.
Illustration notes are always great, especially if you're conscious of your book being illustrated and the illustrations are going to carry some of the storytelling weight, which they should if they're going to be there.
What would you say has surprised you the most about the publishing process? What work has turned out to be more important than you would've thought it would be?
I wasn’t totally ignorant of this before I became a “professional,” but I think the amount of time, thought, and effort that goes into the cover. People say “don't judge a book by its cover” and that's fabulous advice for everything but book covers! We spend so much time wanting the perfect judgment of that cover, to get you to pick up the book and open it and keep reading it.
For A Work in Progress, there was so much thought and consideration and trial and error. I came up with so many versions of this cover. We went through so many colors. Once we settled on reddish orange, we went through so many shades. I produced that scribble; oh my gosh, I produced like 70 scribbles before we got that exact scribble, with that balance, placing each word of the title and getting it just off kilter enough. The whole book is like this: messy and loose and organic and natural and almost random and free.
I always knew that book covers were a lot of work, but the number of smart, talented, creative, thoughtful people that sit there and put their heads together to make that one image... it's astounding. I sometimes feel guilty that it's just my name alone on the book cover, you know? There's a lot of unsung work at the publisher level.
I would love to hear about your relationship with teachers and educators. I know that's a really rich relationship web you've developed over many years of your career.
As a children's author, educators and librarians are colleagues. My mission, at the end of the day, is to reach as many kids and improve and enrich their lives through books, reading, and creativity—their own and the creativity that I have to share. I'm well aware that my books are going to reach nearly no readers, because of the ages that they are, without parents, teachers, and librarians. And for me, it's mostly educators and librarians who are behind the purchasing of those books and the actual putting it in the hands of the right kid at the right moment, so that book has the most powerful impact.
I have found that creating and sustaining relationships with teachers and librarians — going to their conferences, doing school visits, asking and learning from them, seeing their classrooms—has enriched my work so much in terms of the books I'm making, what books are needed, and how they use books in their classroom and libraries. Supporting what they do, however I can, is important because we're two equal parts of this process. Children's authors need them to get their books into children's hands.
I'm fortunate that I get notes from kids and meet kids that say: your book was the first one I ever read. Or: your book's the only book I've ever liked, or I'm now a reader because of your book. That's incredible. But I am only one part of that process, you know? That book had to get into that kid's hand at that exact moment. It's not random, it's not happenstance. It's a thoughtful creative, experienced, knowledgeable educator or librarian who makes that happen.
The central topic of A Work in Progress is a personal and difficult one for you. What has it been like to market something so close to your own experience?
That's been a journey, in and of itself. I wasn't sure if I would ever share this story. I wanted to write it, knew I needed to write it, but I wasn't sure I'd ever share it.
But I have found more and more that by sharing your story, by making yourself vulnerable, it's not actually an act of weakness. It's a show of strength, and it only creates strength to stand in front of other people and share your toughest times and that you made it out the other side. It's very empowering. It's scary as hell. But it's very empowering and rewarding. And it brings you closer to people.
You know, not everyone is going to react the same, and some people might react negatively to this book. But I'm fortunate that the response to me sharing this story has been overwhelmingly positive. For me, as long as there's one kid that's needs to hear it and that has been helped by what I have to share, that's great.
I wanted to draw attention to the free resources you provide on your website. Honestly, during the pandemic and for long car rides activities, I go to your website and I print those out. We love them. How have you found these resources – and the t-shirts you make — serve you as marketing and community building tools? How do they fit into your overall goals?
The free resources came out of a desire to be useful and helpful. Especially in the pandemic, worrying that kids would not have opportunities to be creative and that teachers were going to be even more stressed, and maxed out than ever. I wanted to offer something and the response I got really encouraged me to keep going.
Publishing is a tough business. I have plenty of stuff than doesn’t fit in a book, so if I can share that extra, making it free is sort of a no-brainer. If I can sell some of it and give away some more, chances are people are going to stick around and buy the stuff that's for sale. But it's also just nice to offer what I have because I enjoy doing it.
And those connections with educators and librarians that we talked about, they have fueled a lot. Making flyers about how great graphic novels are and how they're real books... I know that's something that could be useful for them. That's stuff I've learned from being in there and talking to them and offering it creates a lot of gratitude.
The other thing that I spend a lot of time doing, is creating designs and throwing them on t-shirts to raise money for various book access efforts, like First Book and other nonprofits trying to increase access and reduce book deserts in our country. They support communities where kids don't have a single book at home to call their own. There's so much data to suggest that if kids have access to books, so many things go better in their lives, interpersonally and socioeconomically.
What it comes down to for me is what I said earlier: my goal is to improve and enrich kids' lives, through books, through reading, through creativity. Letting that guide me has served me better than anything else. If I were to think about what book is going to sell best, what book will fetch the best price at a publisher, what book is going increase my perception in the author community, if I let that steer me, I think I would strike out way more and I wouldn't be where I am. Defining that goal and letting that steer my decision making and efforts has really never done me wrong.
Finally, what tea or favorite beverage has helped you through the book process!
I'm strong, dark, black, coffee all the way. That's all I want. It's my favorite thing in the morning. Just a nice blast of the darkest coffee. If I get some grounds in my mouth with my first sip, all the better.
Jarrett Lerner is the award-winning creator of the EngiNerds series, the Geeger the Robot series, the activity books Give This Book a Title and Give This Book a Cover, The Hunger Heroes graphic novel chapter books, and the Nat the Cat series. Jarrett is also the creator of the illustrated novel in verse A Work in Progress. In addition to writing, drawing, and visiting schools and libraries across the country, Jarrett co-founded and co-organizes the #KidsNeedBooks and #KidsNeedMentors projects.He lives with his wife and daughters in Massachusetts.
Support Jarrett and other author/illustrators by following, reposting, sharing, reviewing, requesting, and/or reading their books (and buying when you can)!
Happy reading & writing!
Allison Pottern Hoch has happily made books her life’s work. She spent four years marketing and publicizing academic titles at The MIT Press before she went to work for Wellesley Books as a children’s bookseller and event coordinator. She is now living her dream: putting her B.A. in Creative Writing to good use as a novelist and as a writing/marketing coach for authors. She enjoys science fiction, brownies, and a hot cup of tea.
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